Within the community of Fresno there are so many inspiring people that have loved ones with autism and have gracefully accepted the challenge. Chris Raley is one of these inspiring people.
A veteran himself, Chris understands personal challenges and how to successfully approach them. Chris is a loving father of 2, married to a woman who has been a close friend since third grade. Their son, Matthew, was born with autism, diagnosed at 3, and was later also diagnosed with epilepsy at 8.
The Raley family took this one step at a time, showing grace and caring for their young son. Ultimately, Chris made the choice to stay at home with Matthew to attend to his day to day needs, while his wife works as a teacher.
Throughout this transitional period, Chris went on the hunt to find jewelry or something he could wear to show his support to those dealing and living through autism, but was disappointed with the options he was presented with. The quality, in his opinion, was low and impersonal. Frustrated with his choices, Chris decided to take things into his own hands and create his own jewelry.
Since his decision, and a few health problems of his own, Chris' jewelry has sold by the thousands all over the world, and he doesn't see it stopping anytime soon! We got in touch with Chris to learn a little bit more about him, his family, and his inspiring mission to move forward.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family. What is your story?
My name is Chris Raley and I am the owner of CR9 Designs. I am a married father of two. My wife and I have been friends since 3rd grade. We have two children, Karen and Matthew. Karen is in High School and Matthew is in 4th grade. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and epilepsy at age 8. I’m a USAF veteran and former aircraft mechanic. I also hold two teaching credentials. I’m a stay at home dad because Matthew has so many needs that he needs one parent free to drop everything at a moment’s notice. My wife is a teacher and the bread winner for our family. It takes a team effort and I think we make a great team.
April is Autism Awareness Month. What significance does that hold within your family?
There’s an old joke that every month is Autism Awareness Month for families like ours. It’s not a very good joke but it’s true so for us, April is a time to maybe participate in a walk or go to an autism awareness event and be around people who know exactly what our lives are like. It is nice to be in a large group and not worry that someone might be judging my child for simply being who he is.
How has your day to day life been impacted?
Autism impacts every thing we do. It determines how much sleep we will get. It decides where we will or wont go to eat, shop, travel...everything. It impacts my ability to make jewelry. Autism comes first. Everything else can wait. That’s how Matthew needs it to be and that’s what my wife and I try to do for him.
You make some lovely jewelry! Where did you find inspiration to start doing that?
Thank you! Several things happened relatively close to each other in early 2013. First, I was looking for something to wear to show support for my son. I didn’t like anything I saw online and there wasn’t really anything geared towards a dad like me. Most of the pieces I saw were made from the same low quality components shipped in from overseas. People were taking a twenty cent metal puzzle piece and hanging it on a 50 cent chain and selling it as “handmade” for $20. In my opinion it was very impersonal.
Also around that time I saw a magazine article about a polymer clay artist who made jewelry. My mom is an accomplished polymer clay artist so I was familiar with that medium. I decided that I would make my own piece of Autism Awareness jewelry. I spent about $100 on clay and got started. I made my own cookie cutter to cut out tiny puzzle pieces. I honestly thought it was going to be a month-long arts and crafts project but it has turned into something so much more. A few months after starting I set up my booth at an event at Fresno State and almost sold out. I never thought I’d create something that someone else would actually wear but here I am 4 years later and I have thousands of pieces in countries around the world.
How has your life been impacted since you began doing this?
The jewelry business has had a big impact on my life. It is a creative outlet for me. I'm constantly making things and tinkering with projects and now I do something that makes other people happy. It has also exposed us to a whole new group of people and families that are just like us. I've cried with strangers at my jewelry booth as we share stories about our kids and the struggles they face and the milestones they surpass. None of these things would happen if I wasn't making my jewelry.
What types of jewelry do you typically create and why?
In my work it is all about the puzzle piece. The puzzle piece and puzzle pattern are generally recognized as the symbols for Autism Awareness.
In the past I used polymer clay, resin, wire and metals. Those techniques were fun, but there was a limit to what I could do with them. Three years ago I began having serious eye problems. Multiple surgeries have left my vision wavy at times and my depth perception isn’t what it used to be so those techniques had to be abandoned.
A year ago I purchased a cheap laser cutter because I’d always liked the look of laser cut pieces. It had very few English directions and was broken on arrival. My mechanical background provided me the knowledge to fix it and the countless hours awake early with Matthew provided me plenty of research time to understand how the machine works.
Now almost all my work is laser cut and laser engraved wood. I’d wanted to work with wood from the very beginning but the level of intricacy I wanted was impossible to achieve by hand. Now I can design a piece on the computer and it will look perfect despite my vision problems. I can go from an idea to a design to a physical prototype in minutes right here at home. It makes for a very personal connection to the pieces I sell. Every item I sell is made by me, an autism dad, here at home, when autism allows.
They are fantastic items to work with. I still haven’t run out of ideas.
Where can someone purchase your jewelry?
I have an online Etsy shop. www.etsy.com/shop/cr9designs. Occasionally I will set up a booth at an event. I will be at the City of Kerman Autism Awareness night on Wednesday April 5th.
I am also on Facebook
What does the future hold for you? What are your goals?
Hopefully the future holds good health so I can continue to meet all of my family commitments. My goal for the jewelry business is to have fun and continue to improve what I do. The minute it is no longer fun or I am unable to put out a quality product is the minute I walk away for good.
Is there anything else we should know about you?
Chris with Dr. Temple Grandin
We are all on a mission to improve the lives our children lead and the world in which they live. My jewelry is a very small part of that mission. I want someone to see my work and ask questions. My pieces don’t scream “This is autism awareness jewelry” and that is intentional. It is more of a (sometimes) subtle hint. If I make a piece that clearly states something about autism, the mystery is gone and the viewer knows everything they need to know. Instead I want someone to see my work and ask about it.
I want to make pieces that lead to a conversation. Hopefully through that conversation connections will be made and understanding will grow. I hope that leads to parents teaching their typically developing children about autism and the need for compassion and understanding. Those children are our future cops, teachers and politicians. They will set the tone for special needs education and law in the future. If they’ve grown up with compassion and understanding for those on the spectrum, they will be more likely to do the right things for kids like my Matthew.
I’m a lucky man. It hasn’t been without some struggle but I feel like this is what I was meant to do. I would like to thank everyone who has supported my shop over the years. I never imagined it would turn into this and I am blessed by the many friendships that have come about because of my jewelry.
Follow Chris on Facebook and Instagram for updates, and find his jewelry on Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/shop/cr9designs.